The problematic philosophy of ‘shared use’ footways

An old post from Joe Dunkley that resurfaced yesterday in the wake of some comments about Christopher Chope – a former transport minister in the Thatcher government and helmet law enthusiast – has prompted me to reflect on some of the intrinsic problems with ‘shared use’ footways.

The history of ‘shared use’ is itself rather murky, as that post from Joe Dunckley explains.

I understand the “cycle tracks” — that is, crappy shared pavements — that [the Thatcher government] introduced in the 1980 Highways Act were not intended to encourage and enable cycling, but to improve road safety by getting cyclists out of harm’s way while the poor things saved up to buy a car of their own.

This is a good explanation of the background assumption behind the Act – namely, an assumption that cycling was an insignificant mode of transport, one that would either remain insignificant, or disappear completely. The intention of this 1980 Act – which allowed footways to be converted to ‘shared use’ – was clearly not to improve conditions for walking and cycling. Instead it rested on the belief that cycling was so negligible it didn’t deserve its own space, and could just be ‘added’ to the walking environment, presumably until it vanished out of existence.

Of course this brings us to the basic problem with ‘shared use’. It’s a design philosophy that is based around an assumption that cycling is, and will remain, a tiny mode of transport.

‘Shared use’ isn’t future-proof. Anywhere it is implemented in urban areas, in preference to designing for cycling in a space separated from walking (be that cycleways, or low-motor traffic streets) amounts to a prediction that negligible, current, cycling levels will remain negligible.

And indeed, it’s largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inconvenience of using shared use footways, coupled with the conflict with people walking that results, serves to actually suppress cycling levels – a point made in this post from New Zealand.

Shared paths are The Hunger Games of urban transport. Pedestrians and cyclists are thrown together in a hostile environment to fight over the breadcrumbs left by cars and see who survives. They are effectively a self-sabotaging form of infrastructure. The more popular shared paths become the worse the level of service gets for both modes, which then undermines uptake.

There’s – quite literally – no space for growth in cycling on shared use footways. To illustrate this, we can look at environments where cycling was formerly accommodated on a shared use footway, but now has its own space. For instance, on Lower Thames Street.

There ins’t a huge number of pedestrians walking here, but combining the current levels of cycle traffic – greatly increased following the construction of CS3 – and the current levels of walking on that footway would clearly be a recipe for enormous conflict. Only with sufficiently wide, separated space for each of these modes will we see any growth in cycling. ‘Shared use’, in an urban context, is self-suppressing.

In choosing to employ ‘shared use’, highway engineers and planners are assuming that cycling will remain a tiny mode of transport. It represents a continuation of that 1980s belief that cycling wasn’t worth bothering with, and indeed that 1980s hope that it actually disappears. Cycling needs its own space if suppressed demand for it is to be unlocked – ‘shared use’ certainly isn’t that space.

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5 Responses to The problematic philosophy of ‘shared use’ footways

  1. awjreynolds says:

    Reblogged this on CycleBath and commented:
    “‘Shared use’ isn’t future-proof.” I think this problem is one that also pervades our the design approaches that architects use. There is an immense amount of shared space going in to some of these new developments and are based on the premise of cycling just being non-issue rather than a key solution to urban transport as is being demonstrated by London, Cambridge and many other UK cities.

  2. Peter says:

    I fully agree with the points made in this blog post. But I wonder if there’s another argument as to why segregated is a bad idea, namely that segregated lanes allow cyclists to go faster, which in turn gives them a better chance of reaping the health benefits identified by the recent Glasgow University study (cycle-commuting regularly reduces chances of developing serious illnesses like cancer or heart disease by 40%).

    I say this because that same study found that walking to work did not enjoy the same benefits as cycling. As I recall, the authors speculated that this might be because on average, cycling offered more vigorous exercise than walking. So enabling cyclists to go faster via segregated lanes rather than shared lanes will enable them to reduce their risk of heart disease and cancer. This in turn makes them more productive workers (less sick days, and there is evidence that people cycling to work are more productive per hour because of the energising effect of exercise) and less of a burden on the NHS.

    By contrast, on a shared use path, cyclists are likely to simply reduce their average speed to enable them to stop faster. That in turn reduces the private and social benefits of vigorous exercise through cycling.

    So, the demonstrated health benefits of cycling are another reason to promote segregated cycling over shared space. With the NHS generally and trusts across the country plunging into the red, reducing the demand for health services via the provision of segregated cycle lanes has got to be an attractive option for Councils.

    • pm says:

      I note though that that study defined a ‘long distance walking commute’ as anything over 6 miles a week. Which seems an odd definition of ‘long’, being only a little over half a mile each way.

      Most walking commutes I’ve had (either before I took up cycling or for routes I found too stressful to cycle) have been between 2 and 4 miles each way, so between 20 and 40 miles a week. I would hope that with a genuinely ‘long distance’ walking commute the effects would be larger.

  3. Pingback: “A self-sabotaging form of infrastructure” – The problematic philosophy of ‘shared use’ footways

  4. Paul Walton says:

    I partly agree with the position in the Blog, it reflects our generally selfish and eat all you can kill culture. It doesn’t have to be this way as a regular visitor to Tokyo and other parts of Japan, where the footpath is shared with all, I have never seen any conflict or unreasonable behaviour and thousands cycle to the train stations, schools and nurseries. In fact 10% of all journeys are made by bike, and there is very little segregated infrastructure. Electric bikes seem to have become the dominant form of transport to the places mentioned, Panasonic sell an ebike that is more like a Humvee with space for two children and shopping, much used by mothers.

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